When Kim Canterbury began working as a substitute special education teacher at Hyre Community Learning Center, she didn’t realize she’d end up teaching the entire year.
Even less expected was that she would end up taking one of her four students into her home as one of her own.
Yet, when she found out her 12-year-old student Shaniya Simpson was the sole survivor of a house fire that killed the rest of her family, Canterbury hardly gave any thought to it — she just knew it was something that needed to be done.
“There was never any doubt or question,” Canterbury said as she sat in the living room of her home in Cuyahoga Falls — the home that Shaniya, now 13, lives in as well.
In December of 2016, Vicki Wallis had just arrived in Arizona after driving two days from Ohio when she learned that her only child, Shirley Wallis, had perished in a fire in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood. The other victims were Shirley Wallis’ partner, Omar Riley, and their two children, 9-year-old Aniyla Riley and 8-year-old Shanice Riley.
The only survivors were Jennifer Grubbs, a family friend who lived in the house, and Vicki Wallis’ granddaughter Shaniya, who was pulled unconscious from her smoky bedroom window and resuscitated by emergency responders.
It was later determined that the fire was caused by unattended cooking; the three-story rental home had no working smoke detectors. The landlord was sued for wrongful death in a lawsuit that was settled for $360,000.
After an agonizing two-day drive back, Vicki Wallis rushed to the hospital where Shaniya was being treated for a small burn on her thigh and smoke inhalation. There, she was met by family members, Shaniya’s principals and Canterbury.
Canterbury, who had been a special education teacher for more than 20 years, was hired at Hyre that year as a substitute, but plans changed and she wound up teaching the class permanently. Shaniya, who has autism and some developmental delays, had been Canterbury’s student for less than three months before the fire.
As Canterbury began talking with Shaniya’s family, it grew clear that no one would be able to take Shaniya in.
So Canterbury stepped up. “Our doors are open,” Canterbury told the family.
Shaniya was in the hospital for a week. By Christmas, she was in a new home with Kim and Marc Canterbury and their two daughters, 5-year-old Abby, and 8-year-old Emma. “She’s funny and nice,” Emma said about Shaniya. “I think she’s the kindest person I ever met.”
Added Marc: “I told her, ‘Look, this is your house now.’ And from that moment on, it’s been her house.”
Kim quickly got to work spreading fire safety awareness — a cause she still feels strongly about, especially because local residents can get smoke detectors for free.
Since the Canterburys assumed guardianship of Shaniya, Wallis has had regular contact with the family as well. “I guess I come as a package deal with Shaniya,” Wallis said.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Wallis sat visiting with the Canterburys in their home. They chatted about Shaniya’s growth since her time in the hospital not so long ago.
Shaniya “is a good kid all around. Your daughter did an amazing job with her,” Kim told Wallis.
“Yes she did,” Wallis said. “I’m very proud of her. And I’m very proud of what [Shaniya] went through. To go through an ordeal like we did, it brought us together, too.”